FundAction grantees: Introducing Magacin

Magacin is one of the first-ever grantees of our pilot project FundAction. Magacin is a self-organized common space that operates outside the mainstream public or commercial sectors, accommodates communities and holds great social and cultural value in the city. We spoke to them about their experience and the value of systemic change.

 The Magacin space after renovation.

The Magacin space after renovation.

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Tell us about the initial idea behind Magacin and how it has developed since then. Where did you find your inspiration and are there any particular examples you followed?

Magacin started off as an idea to provide a working space for the independent cultural scene (druga scena) in Belgrade, since there was nothing available. At the time, in 2007, there was also political will from the City of Belgrade to create a model where the City would take all the (legal) obligations of technically running the space (utilities, cleaning etc.) and independent organisations, selected through an open call, would provide the programme for this unique cultural centre.

This endeavour ended up being a semi-failed attempt in which the youth cultural centre – a City-run institution – managed Magacin. The organisations never got to sign a contract for the use of Magacin, even though they were chosen in the initial call and stayed in the space for a number of years. The situation today hasn’t changed legally for the people using Magacin, but the way the space functions today is much closer to the initial idea of an open, inclusive platform that fosters the values of self-organisation and solidarity.

This became possible for several reasons, one being the threat of eviction by the City, in 2015, when the Association ICSS (Independent Cultural Scene of Serbia) was invited to help in the negotiations. At the time, the open calendar model was proposed, as a way to enable any and all organisations to use the space. After a public debate process it was implemented in practice, since the legal situation is still not resolved.

The model itself was adapted from the model of Pogon cultural centre in Zagreb, which is a public-civil partnership institution. However, in the years since, the model has been developed and adapted to the specific situation of Magacin. Most importantly, since the model was implemented, the number of users and usages has steadily grown, and Magacin is now being used by over 100 different organisations and informal groups with almost ten different calendar entries on a daily basis in seven different spaces.

 

What are the main obstacles (internal & external) you have encountered while building and running the space?

The main obstacle is the lack of a framework that would support the non-institutional models already at work. This framework could easily be implemented. The “only” issue is the stance the City has towards Magacin. The range goes from ignoring what is now one of the most vibrant cultural centres in Belgrade to trying to evict us. Since the first eviction attempt, which was defended by the big public reaction and a campaign organised by ICSS and implemented by a multitude of users, there was another attempt in late 2016.

The public response to these attempts has been overwhelming and the cultural scene stood by Magacin, which led to the public statement by the City that they will not evict us, but would start a negotiation process. The process is now on hold, as we wait for the first meeting with the new City Secretary for Culture.

Internally, there have been surprisingly few issues, for such a diverse and large group that is self-organised and self-governed. This could possibly be ascribed to the outside threat and the successful action that created more solidarity and readiness to be benevolent and cooperative within the group of users.

Your space is a meeting ground for many diverse organisations and creates encounters for the local community. How can their creative potential influence the cultural policy of the country?

We are not officially recognised as policy makers or stakeholders in that process and our footprint and activities are mainly ignored by the state and city officials and decision makers. Nevertheless, we are trying to be that one elephant that is way too big to be hidden under the carpet. By offering directly available space and facilities, without this usual playing-hard-to-get façade, that is seen as a trademark of any institution in this region, we are trying to undermine some age-old dogmas and thus indirectly bring new cultural policies to the table.

Furthermore, being easily available, we are directly becoming an incubator and a meeting point for many emerging initiatives that are directly affecting cultural policies in their fields. 

You want to create a new type of institution based on civic-public partnership, reusing urban space for community purposes. Can you tell us a bit more about your idea and goal, and also your strategy to achieve this? Are you at all afraid to speed up the gentrification process?

The most recent development of Magacin cultural centre happened in some sort of post-apocalyptic cultural environment that emerged after galloping gentrification stormed the area. So for us, it is pointless to be afraid that we might speed it up, as we are rather trying to preserve what can be saved in the aftermath of gentrification.

All the local community bonds that we are building at the moment happened organically as we were not obliged or motivated to produce them at any project or policy level.

In the end, Magacin brought several improvements to the neighbourhood and local community, with some of them even being further reaching. But paradoxically the success of these improvements can be attributed to this non-evangelising, passive approach we established that is usually lacking in the many projects that are aggressively bringing participatory cultural programmes to communities.

 

How do you work towards systemic change, what is the change you want to see, and how are you planning to achieve it?

The most important and urgent systemic changes are even more commonly available resources and accountability for actions. It is our belief that Magacin is contributing on both of these fronts, since there are so many groups and individuals using the space and it is also available to more and more users each month. The open calendar model is evolving with new types of usage and formats and our goal is to offer the model as a tool that could be used by others in similar or different situations where you need to manage resources that are openly shared by many.

We are continually reflecting on both the day-to-day issues and the overall strategic positioning of Magacin so as to use the fluidity as an instrument to broaden the freedom of this model instead of making it more rigid, which we hope will help to keep the structure running. In the future, we believe it is necessary to push the conversation from one particular space with one activity’s focus to the idea that all public spaces should be publicly available and accountable to the public.

Who is we? Or: The revolution of fraternity. An exchange with Bas Mesters.

#democracyneedsimagination

In 2017, the angry citizen was supposed to topple the political establishment at the elections in the Netherlands, France, Great Britain and Germany. Europe was supposed to erupt. Until now it never happened. Dutch journalist Bas Mesters set out to investigate and found the seeds of a revolution of fraternity. In his series of essays for Dutch weekly De Groene Mesters traveled to France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Poland with more countries due. Mesters talks to changemakers who not only dare dream of new democracies but live them, he discusses with thinkers and policymakers and discovers an unsung revolution of fraternity happening across the continent. We discussed his project with him and share excerpts of his essays.

 MAAM_Museo dell’Altro e dell’ Altrove di Metropoliz in Rome. A living and working place. Photo by Bas Mesters.

MAAM_Museo dell’Altro e dell’ Altrove di Metropoliz in Rome. A living and working place. Photo by Bas Mesters.

Bas, what got you started?
“Newspaper commentaries along the lines of: Europe is a volcano. Overheated poisonous streams of lava are boiling beneath the surface; 2017 would become the year of the eruption of fragmentation. Books with titles such as The End of Europe or After Europe cast their shadows ahead. Following the Brexit and Donald Trump, the if-then-logic of the media predicted in January that Geert Wilders would destabilise the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen France and Frauke Perty Germany. Europe would collapse under the pressure of immigration, globalization, digitization, the hiatus between world citizens and locals, between immigrants and natives, between young and old, city folk and provincials, knowledge workers and makers, state and people, elite and mass.

At the time, I was wondering: what if the volcano doesn’t erupt? Why wouldn’t that happen? In order to prepare for this unlikely scenario, according to the media, I decided to seek out the geysers, the breathing vents of the volcano. Places where the pressure may be alleviated and where perhaps fertile grounds might emerge.” [The song of the kolibri]


What do those fertile grounds look like?
Contrary to doom-thinkers I did not believe the two widely felt frustrations - a growing inequality and a sense of not being recognized – would only become public at the ballot boxes, because people want to act, need to do things together, want to feel close to one another. All over Europe we have seen new bonds emerge between self-organizing citizens. It was during my visit to Paris I found out what I wanted to explore. I met community organizer Hadama Traoré and philosopher Mathieu Niango, who both collaborate in one of those bonds.

“Following the lines of thought of the French Revolution with Rosanvallon one could say that the equality revolution of the nineteenth century, that ended up bringing about the welfare state, was followed by a liberty revolution in the West. The liberty revolution, which for all intents and purposes began with the invasion of Normandy by the allied troops, gave us the freedom to think for ourselves and be heard without the fear of oppression and violence. That newly found liberty instigated experiments, fantasy, creation, flower power, a lust for travel, the fall of the Wall, an urge to discover, a development fever. Starting in the eighties, the market-driven liberty revolution culminated in hypercapitalism, speculation, bubbles and the financial crash of 2008, and it will end up in the impending climate stroke if we don’t do something about it.

All of this has caused a new crisis of equality. Equality will have to be restored once again. However, now that individualisation and privatisation are a fact, and the market is controlling the flow of capital like never before, the state is virtually incapable of organising it. The citizen, the community needs to be involved, says Pierre Rosanvallon. This isn’t necessarily about immediate realisation of economic equality, but rather what he calls realising a new relationship of equality, enabling groups to rekindle their discussion. A brotherhood relationship, as Hadama had called it. Perhaps a revolution of fraternity?” [The song of the kolibri]

 Rousseau_After a call to action by Matthieu Niango activists took to the streets of Paris and posted affiches announcing ‘A nous la démocratie!’. Photo from Twitter.

Rousseau_After a call to action by Matthieu Niango activists took to the streets of Paris and posted affiches announcing ‘A nous la démocratie!’. Photo from Twitter.

Doesn’t fraternity ring an alarmist bell?
Yes, there are at least two dangerous sides to the notion of fraternity. It is gendered. And it easily evolves into an excluding principle, into what I call the brown-shirt brotherhoods. I like to oppose these with what I call the rainbow coalitions. Unfortunately the first ones dominate headlines, whereas the latter are building our future, far away from the media attention. The goal of my European travels is to shed some light on these positive forces.

“I met people who were advancing brotherhood, although they often preferred not to call it by that name. Such as Kazim Erdogan, a psychologist nicknamed 'the Sultan of Neukölln' who for years has been helping Turkish fathers connect with each other and with German society. He preferred to use the term 'good and honest communication'. I suddenly realized that the word 'communication' is derived from commune: communality.” [We are way ahead of the city].

“Maria tries to connect them by taking action. It costs her and her daughter and her daughter’s girlfriend a lot of energy, and they have to survive on a few hundred euro a month from summer jobs. Yet they want nothing more than to collect books, give them away, and talk about them. “It gives lonely people an identity and a sense of belonging,” says daughter Weronika. Maria's library is a focus of resistance in this Warsaw district, building togetherness regardless of colour and origin.

Poland has been a much less friendly place since Law and Justice took over. The party deliberately creates conflicts, Maria says. “It polarizes people against Europe, against foreigners.” It’s all about divide and conquer, and turning a blind eye when people do things in public that they’d never have dared before, like declaring that gay people should be sent to the gas chambers. "The new government promises you a star in the sky. And if you don’t get it they say sorry, we couldn’t give it to you, someone stole the ladder."
[The dream is dead]

Mesters says he encounters examples of this instrumental polarization time and again. Many of the revolutionaries of fraternity address this polarization. Yet, lessons in political framing have taught us that deframing political messages doesn’t work if you name the frame, on the contrary, people will remember the frame even better. To change the story one needs to redirect attention. To do a great job in storytelling. As artists can do.

"You are modern society’s garbage, and are treated as such. Nobody wants you anymore. Let's build a rocket together and go to the moon. We’ll make a nice game of it and film it." He called it Space Metropoliz. His idea is that there are more and more “disposable lives”, as the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman described them. Migrants, Roma, the unemployed were all rejects. “So instead of awaiting their fate in the garbage dump, I proposed that we go to the moon together.” [Hell is loneliness]

In Mesters’ words the revolution of fraternity can teach us more than reframing current politics: “It teaches us how to deal with limits, personal as much as shared ones. To act together one needs to know the limits of the partner. It teaches us modesty in the face of our personal ambitions. And that could be healthy in times when we are told everything is possible. We need to learn dealing with things not becoming true in order to make changes.”

“We live in an era of transition from certainties to uncertainties,” says Italian Christian Iaione over lunch. “The great theories and ideas that believe in the market, and that the state sees as the organising principle, no longer hold as much sway as they used to.” Iaione is investigating how the commons, which in the past centuries were highly valued, particularly by fishermen at sea and farmers in the countryside, can also be used in the big city. How should local government deal with these bottom-up forms of fraternity, and what makes such a project succeed or fail?

What Iaione does in Centocelle is to take students from an elite university to a poor neighbourhood to serve the needs of that community, not in pursuit of an ideology or to help people, but simply to work together. “It's not about participation or talking, it’s about doing things. We’re interested in creating work at the end of the trajectory, an economic reality, joint ventures that can offer a counterforce to the market and the government and increase the economic diversity of the city.” [Hell is loneliness]

This ‘doing things’ is also characterizing Bas Mesters himself. What started as an idea when reading newspapers in early 2017 evolved into this series of essays in a Dutch weekly, but also grew into a series of public events in The Hague. And the series is not ending yet. Bas admits being surprised at the width and depth of the revolution of fraternity: “I never thought this series would last so long. So many people are active in new established networks, as they want to feel ownership over their societies again. They want to live, act, work together. The stubbornness that drives many of this people, is the same stubbornness that got me into journalism. The stubbornness to not accept the world as others tell it to be.” Again, his own ideas seem well reflected in a quote.

“For Sztarbowski and Łysak, the theatre is a laboratory for the development of alternatives. Last year, they wrote the words Freedom, Equality, and Imagination on the front of the theatre. "To us, fraternity above all means imagination. Imagining together how things can be improved." And the key word in this respect is not strength or power, but care and compassion. “I think the new revolution is one for women in particular. The twenty-first century will be the era of sisterhood.” [The dream is dead]

This is the second installment in a series of portraits of thinkers, writers, changemakers, artists and policymakers who dare imagine another democracy. Find the complete series via the hashtag #democracyneedsimagination 

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This booklet is a way of gathering learning from those people and organisations who are working for greater participation by – and representation of – those with refugee backgrounds in the media. It is based on the work of nine organisations from across Europe that were part of an Erasmus+ project called Displaced in Media in 2017-18.

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Across Europe, individuals and collectives of journalists, filmmakers, cultural professionals, activists, teachers and researchers are trying to break through the power structures that stop the most disadvantaged from being heard. They are paving the way for the production of media in their own community in a bottom up and inclusive way. They are setting up their own platforms where alternative voices are highlighted and they are making links to mainstream media and other important platforms.

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